Bar manager Koky Lopez of the Palmetto Hotel brings a taste of the Caribbean islands with her mojito recipe that uses Hilton Head Panela Rum | Photos be Ruta Smith

Warmer weather means indulging in crushable cocktails. While Charleston bars offer spectacular craft drinks, nothing beats the classics. 

Here are five refreshing cocktails to get you through the summer, aptly described (and highly recommended) by bartenders, a distiller and bottle shop owner. 

Gin and tonic

Gin, tonic, ice: An incredibly simple drink, packed with so much flavor. A good gin and tonic is a delicate balance between the piney citrus taste of juniper in gin and the sweet bitterness of quinine in tonic water. 

“When you have a balanced gin and tonic, it’s almost like a symphony,” said Nippitaty Distillery owner Traxler LittleJohn. 

But striking that delicate balance is an art.

Nippitaty’s standard gin is light on the juniper, but its Aurora Gin, a spirit infused with butterfly pea flower, adds an earthy note and a cool color. Nippitaty distiller Ethan Baker recommends pairing the regular gin with Jack Rudy’s elderflower tonic or combining the Aurora Gin with regular tonic for complex balances. 

“In the regular gin and tonics, it’s a little bit more herbaceous, and the Aurora, I think, is slightly less herbaceous, more citrus forward,” Baker said. “And so you still have that nice balance of citrus and herbal.” 

LittleJohn added, “Who says all gin has to taste the same? Who says all tonic has to taste the same? It’s a misconceived notion. It’s almost like a stereotype.”

A gin and tonic may seem like a simple concoction, but using the right gin can highlight the complexities of various herbs and spices. 

French 75

Church and Union bar manager Scott Kline calls the French 75 “the perfect summer cocktail.” He described it as a more complex version of a mimosa.

“It’s a classic cocktail for a reason,” he said. “And it’s super simple, but a very, very great cocktail. You have Champagne, simple syrup, lemon juice and gin. It just kind of hits all the notes. It hits the floral notes from the gin, you have the lemon juice to give it a bit of tartness and you have the simple syrup to give it some sweetness.” 

The Champagne element adds bubbles and extra booze. 

French 75s are served in a Champagne flute with a lemon twist for an Instagram-worthy photo. It’s a crushable drink, he added, and easy to make, especially for larger groups. 

“You can have multiple, and it’s perfect for brunch,” he said, “especially if you’re just looking to go beyond your standard mimosa, or anything like that.” 


For Koky Lopez, bar manager of the Palmetto Hotel, mojitos are a reminder of island life in Puerto Rico. 

“On the island, mojitos were a way to use the hierbabuena (spearmint),” she said. “They grow like weeds there. But with Puerto Rico being a main producer of sugar and sugar cane, we’re just sourcing these things that come natural to the island. And that’s where the mojito made sense.”

Mojitos are traditionally made with white rum, lime juice, muddled mint and a little bit of sugar topped with soda water and garnished with sprigs of fresh mint. But mojitos on the island don’t use soda water, according to Lopez. She believes soda water was added to the recipe as the drink’s popularity spread around the world.

“The good thing about a mojito is once you make one and somebody sees it, they want it,” she said.

To make a mojito, Lopez muddles mint leaves with raw sugar to act as an exfoliant and release the oils from the leaves. But for stronger, more pungent leaves, a hard shake would also do the trick. 

“For rum, I always prefer Puerto Rican rum like Havana Club, Don Q and Bacardi,” she said. 

At the Palmetto Hotel though, Lopez highlights a more regional spirit — Hilton Head Panela Rum. “That one has a little more of like vegetal and greener notes, a little bit of funk like Jamaican rum. And because it’s something local, I wanted to put it out there.” 


While daiquiris are most commonly known as the frozen cocktail drink of the summer, a traditional daiquiri — made with rum, lime juice and simple syrup — is much easier to make, and tastier to drink. 

Roderick Groetzinger, owner of Equal Parts Fine Spirits, said a simple daiquiri of lime juice and simple syrup highlights the diverse flavor profiles of rum | Photo by Ruta Smith

Owner of Johns Island Equal Parts Fine Spirits & Bottle Shop Roderick Groetzinger is a big fan of daiquiris and rum. When you walk into the bottle shop, the first shelf is full of rums curated by Groetzinger. Add lime juice and simple syrup to one of these choices rums, and you’ve got an excellent summer cocktail.  

“There are only three ingredients, and it’s three ingredients that are very easily accessible,” Groetzinger said. “With something that only has three ingredients, it’s almost like a wonderful way to showcase the flavors.”

To make a daiquiri at home, combine two parts rum, one part simple syrup and one part fresh lime juice. Then shake the mixture and strain it into a chilled glass. 

But just because the drink requires few ingredients doesn’t mean it can’t be complex. Groetzinger said a daiquiri is “the go-to drink for rum,” like whiskey is to a Manhattan or old fashioned and tequila is to a margarita.

Photo by Ruta Smith

“The word daiquiri is such a misconstrued term, in a consumer base, to no one’s fault,” he said. “A lot of people picture blenders and sticky sweet drinks with cream on them. But the possibilities are endless. It’s very easy for a rum picker to ask, ‘How does this taste in a daiquiri?’ ” 

For a rum fanatic like Groetzinger, his go-to choice is the Cuban Havana Club 3, which he said isn’t available in the United States. But for more accessible rums, he recommends Real McCoy Three-Year, Probitas, Clairin Sajous and Ten to One. 

“You can have 100 different bottles of rum and using the same recipe, you can have 100 different drinks.” 

Piña Colada

Career bartender and barista Michael Mai learned to make the perfect piña colada in 2017 at The Ordinary — but not by following the letter recipe. 

“It was sort of like the spirit of the recipe,” Mai said. “The real piña colada, which goes in the blender, tastes pretty bad. But in the spirit of that recipe, you have coconut, pineapple, rum, lime, and if all that stuff is really fresh and good, then you can have a really delicious shaken piña colada. It’s really balanced.” 

Traditional piña coladas are blended with rum, coconut cream and pineapple for a thick, frozen cocktail. While a cool smoothie-esque cocktail sounds nice on a hot summer day, you also want it to be balanced and delicious. 

“It’s the same conversation you’d have with someone in 2019 about a daiquiri,” Mai said. “Like when you say piña colada, they think it’s gonna be gross. It’s gonna be too sweet. It’s gonna be frozen. But bartenders are taking it a little more seriously, using fresh ingredients. And it’s really delicious.”

Unlike a daiquiri, though, Mai believes the piña colada is the perfect summer sipper.

“Something like a shaken drink served up, I don’t really want to sip on that for super long,” he said. “Piña coladas and mojitos are more for sipping, like just chillin’.”

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